Women inmates find a different form of release while waiting for the gates to open
Dozens of female prisoners slowly stretch their limbs during a relaxing yoga class at Bangkok’s Klong Prem Central Prison. “I feel calm listening to the instructor’s voice, and as my muscles unwind, my heart lifts,” says a 30-year-old woman who’s serving time for murder.
These sessions are sponsored by Krungthai Card (KTC), and lifting up hearts is exactly the purpose. Hearts carry heavy burdens in places like this, not always deserved.
Krungthai Card introduced the yoga classes at Klong Prem Central Prison. Photo courtesy of KTC
“We arranged the yoga classes because we wanted to give the women a helping hand,” says KTC vice president Podchaneeporn Chamnanpukdee. “We recognised that many of the women who end up in jail are also victims.”
Klong Prem holds 4,650 women inmates, 70 per cent of them there for drug offences. Quite a few attend the yoga classes led by Tanawat Ketvimut, chairman of Jivita Sikkha the Network for Life Learning and Understanding.
Neung, a 35-year-old inmate attending the classes, gives Tanawat a squeeze as the session ends and tells him, “Thank you for teaching us. What you have taught us today will drive us forward.”
Another inmate, 38, who asked not to be named, says yoga has taught her about her emotions and helped her control them better. “I used to be really quick-tempered, but practising yoga has calmed me,” says the mother of three.
Convicted of drug trafficking, she’ll complete her prison term in 10 months.
Podchaneeporn believes the yoga classes prepare inmates to adapt to life outside. “They’ll be healthier, both physically and emotionally.”
Tanawat Ketvimut of Jivita Sikkha the Network for Life Learning and Understanding leads the yoga sessions, occasionally earning a hug for his efforts. Photo courtesy of KTC
Saying he’d never taught yoga in a prison before, Tanawat “jumped at the opportunity because yoga is good for people”.
“I see determination and concentration in the eyes of the practitioners. Yoga refines your mind through physical movement.” The mind naturally responds to outside stimuli, he says, but through yoga and the related practice of controlled breathing, it can be trained to remain still and become more conscious of the self.
“You develop an immunity to the stimuli. As your mind becomes calmer, you’re more at peace,” he says.
At the end of each yoga exercise class, Tanawat leads the women through a session of meditation and mindfulness. They play various games that are both fun and instructive in how consciousness makes a difference in any given situation.
Regardless of age, they seem to realise that, if they don’t concentrate fully, they tend to make mistakes. They also come to appreciate while reflecting on their lives that there are many good aspects they might have overlooked.
“I have a good family,” says a 26-year-old drug convict. “I have three children and they always give me moral support. I also have good parents. No matter what I’ve done, they’ve forgiven me.”
Looking back, she says, she feels great remorse for the crimes she’s committed. “But when I walk out of jail I know I’ll do well, regardless of the circumstances I find there.”
Still another female inmate, age 28, says she learned from meditating what she wants most in life. “If I had just three days left in this life, I’d just want to spend them with my mum and ask for her forgiveness. I don’t want anything big anymore.”
Behind the bars, an inner freedom
Academics and corrections authorities have been collaborating to change the nature of prisons from punishment centres into “caring communities”. As part of that, a project called Yoga in Prison is providing physical and mental rehabilitation to women inmates.
And, in a country with more than 45,000 women in prison, interest among the inmates is keen.
Yoga instructor Ni-on Kosayodom was a prisoner herself not long ago. Photo/The Nation
“It’s advanced training in yoga and it demands a lot of patience,” says 24-year-old former convict-turned-instructor Ni-on Kosayodom.
“Yoga is like the dharma in the way it heals and trains your mind via meditation and practised breathing. It allows you to see your self-worth, learn from past mistakes and live in the present, all of which leads to a better future. It also helps you relax and overcome stress.
“And when you’re recognised for doing well, like winning a prize in a yoga competition, it makes you proud knowing that an inmate like you came come so far.”
Ni-on, who learned yoga while behind bars, received a royal pardon in December. “After my release I was worried how people would regard me, but everyone was very welcoming. No one expressed any ill feelings over my past.”
She’d been jailed for conspiring to commit murder, but proclaims her innocence. She says her boyfriend and his pals got into a fight with another group in Khon Kaen one night. Ni-on was charged with instigating the fight and her defence proved too weak to convince the court otherwise. Her initial 28-year jail term was reduced to 12 years on appeal.
Life behind bars was without purpose, she says. It’s just a matter of staying alive day by day, encumbered by both walls and endless regulations. Fortunately the inmates were offered activities to choose from and she decided on yoga, soon discovering a “freedom from within”.
Yoga has become a welcome pursuit at Udon Thani Prison.
Ni-on had her first lesson at Udon Thani Prison in 2013 and kept at it until she was transferred to Ratchaburi Central Prison to be trained as a yoga instructor.
Teerawan Wathanotai, dean of architecture at Pathum Thani-based Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, explains that the school collaborated with the Corrections Department to provide the activities.
There are three main projects, she says. In one, inmates are trained as health volunteers, able to administer first aid and educate others about health. Mobile medical teams are set up to provide dental and other health services.
Another project promotes nutrition within the prison by letting inmates grow vegetables. And the third involves yoga for both personal practice and training as instructors. Prospective instructors are trained at Ratchaburi Prison, which also lets its top yoga practitioners enter international competitions.
Teerawan says representatives from 14 countries competed in the 2015 Asian Yoga Sports Championships in Bangkok. Thailand entered a 12-strong team from Ratchaburi and Udon Thani prisons that finished third with two silver medals, four bronzes and 12 consolation prizes.
That moment of glory, she says, helped create a new image for Thai prisons and instilled a sense of pride in the inmates. Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha even gave each participating inmate an autographed portrait.
Teerawan points out that 10-minute videos of the inmates doing yoga are periodically posted at www.YouTube.com/user/KamLangJaiS so the public can offer encouragement.